Dr Sujaya Banerjee

Dr Sujaya Banerjee is the Chief Talent Officer - Essar Group, Founder of L&OD Roundtable and Women Leadership Forum of Asia (wlfa.in).

Leadership and the Power of Appreciative Inquiry

Dr Sujaya Banerjee

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Tremendous forces are radically reshaping the world of work as we know it. New technologies, globalisation and increased employee expectations have created a pressing need for agility in a tumultuous business environment placing huge pressures on leaders for performance. Leaders struggling to deliver results in an ever-changing, unpredictable environment attempt to manage the turbulence and a safe passage for all by pressurising teams to deliver, sometimes unrealistic goals in a difficult ambiguous environment. In their zeal to deliver, it is not uncommon for Leaders to over-magnify performance gaps and failures. Thereby, demotivating teams and depleting their energies which send them on a downward spiral of despair and hopelessness.

Increasingly, the experience of the past is no longer useful for predicting solutions for the future and optimism and positive energies have become the first casualties of this new business environment. Relationships, trust, collaboration, resource sharing and recognition, all take a back seat as the organisation struggles to stay afloat and leaders who are the ‘Fulcrum of Engagement’ experience deep fatigue and non-gratification for their efforts.

Appreciative  Inquiry is an approach to Personal and Organisational Change based on
the work of David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva of Case Western Reserve University. The
Appreciative Enquiry approach challenges the traditional problem-solving process within
organisations that are deficit-based, leading to depleting energies through gap analysis
and blame games that, at best, generate solutions that restore the original level of performance. Instead, Appreciative Inquiry is a strength-based approach to problem-solving that enables the organisation to raise the bar on performance by releasing positive generative energies and drawing from the Life-Giving Forces of organisations — forces that are operative when the organisation is working at its best. Appreciative Inquiry is also based on the assumption that questions and dialogues about strengths, successes, values, hopes
and dreams are transformational. It suggests that organisational change is in fact a relational
process of inquiry grounded in affirmation and appreciation. The Appreciative Inquiry approach
is based on certain principles, of which the following four are most relevant, particularly in the context of suggesting what leaders could do to manage teams and retaining positive energies during difficult times.

(1) The Constructionist Principle and Leadership- Words create Worlds
This places human communication and language at the center of human organisations and change. This principle acknowledges the fact that meaning is made in conversation and reality is created in communication. Leaders play the most important role within the organisation of connecting the dots and interpreting reality for others. They carry the responsibility of defining the world for those around them. Therefore, words, metaphors and the language that leaders use are more than descriptions of reality. They, in fact, help create the worlds for their teams with their words. Therefore, the questions leaders must ask themselves are – What are we putting out into the social discourse within organisations? When things go wrong, are we
the beacons of hopelessness instead of the harbingers of hope? Especially during times of
adversity, challenge, confusion and insecurity, are we able to maintain a climate for positive action?

(2) The Simultaneity Principle and Leadership- Inquiry creates change
That the approach or nature of inquiry itself is the change. That the inquiry does not precede
change. Therefore, leaders must be careful of the direction they allow the inquiry to take by being careful about the first questions asked. The diagnosis of the problem itself sets off the direction of thought and action. They therefore, must conduct the inquiry carefully, with
responsibility by understanding the impact of problem definition ahead of generating solutions.

(3) The Poetic Principle and Leadership- We can choose what we study
Organisations are like poetry, they are open books with great sources of learning and study. Therefore, what we choose to focus on grows. What we choose to study can create our world.

As leaders, do we choose to focus on results despite efforts? Do we choose to focus on
mistakes? Do we choose to focus on what is absent? Do we instead look towards our strengths,
achievements, best practices and in difficult times, stories of heroism, employee-ship and engagement? Whatever we choose to spotlight and appreciate, as Leaders will grow within organizations.

(4) The Anticipatory Principle and Leadership – Images inspire Action
Human systems move in the direction of images of the future we create. The more positive and
hopeful those images, the more positive the present day action will be.

Like Einstein said, “If the mind can see it, the body will obey it!” This principle is the most powerful for leaders grappling with the complexities of an unrelenting business environment that demands the onerous task of defining the course of action and
motivating teams to work in new directions. It is during times of ambiguity that the leader’s ability to visualise how a new idea will work or how opportunities will unfold in the future, is put to test. The Anticipatory Principle is in full power even while defining the outcomes of everyday decisions enabling the leader to create a climate for action by creating positive image of the future. Appreciative Inquiry is rooted in the power of Positive Psychology. From the placebo effect that makes the power of belief triumph reality, to the Pygmalion effect that enables people to rise to others’ expectations of them, both positive and negative. It is a powerful philosophy for leaders to get people to do their best, create performance from Self
Belief and develop real leaders who can drive change and solve problems with joy. It can be a
powerhouse of a belief system because it celebrates organisations as interconnected human systems, all waiting to become expansive in their strengths and collective life-giving
forces. It is an approach that can make the workplace an inclusive sphere where problems
are solved and change is managed with good cheer, releasing generative forces that raise the bar on organisational performance.

Leadership that cannot look beyond its nose, managing from quarter to quarter, identifying
mistakes, placing blames and penalties with fervour for driving performances must stop to
reflect. Are our actions constantly unappreciative of our talent? How do we generally open meetings — by stating disappointments and gaps? How do we react to the presentation of new ideas? What do we say during business review meetings? Is our focus deficit-oriented,
constantly focused on what has not been delivered? Not happened? Complains or feedback from customers? Some organisations have created toxic cultures with leaders being
rewarded for constantly badgering and beating up teams for poor performance. Such teams only get bogged down eventually into nonperformance.

Leaders who believe in and practice Appreciative Inquiry principles can drive performance
and change through the positive power of palpable life-giving forces that constantly help people
deliver to the business and drive Positive Change.

References:

– Appreciative Inquiry in Organisational Life – Cooperrider, D and Srivastva, S

– The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practice Guide to Positive Change, Whitney, D. and Trosten-Bloom, A., Berrett- Koehler Publishers

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